Sophomores lead the way as Spartans pull away from Stony Brook

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EAST LANSING, Mich.—When the going got tough against mid-major Stony Brook, Michigan State went to its talented second-year players to grind out a victory Sunday afternoon.

The Spartans came out flat against the Seawolves but pulled away midway through the second half, thanks to their talented sophomore class. Nick Ward, Miles Bridges, Josh Langford and Cassius Winston combined for 74 points in the Spartans’ 93-71 victory at the Breslin Center.

Ranked No. 2 in the country before Tuesday’s 88-81 loss to No. 1 Duke, the Spartans will likely fall a couple spots in the newest batch of rankings on Monday. But the Spartans looked like they were on the verge of falling far out of the top 10 during a less-than-impressive first half.

Stony Brook, picked to finish fourth in the America East conference this season, led by eight with 9:47 left in the first half, buoyed by lights-out shooting from outside. The Seawolves hit four of their first five from beyond the arc and made six out of 13 in the first 20 minutes. However, the Spartans regained the lead for good with 3:33 left and used a 12-5 run to close the half.

“When a team starts out hitting six of their first eight three’s, and most of them were their big guys,” Tom Izzo lamented after the game. “I said we don’t guard very well with certain people, and that proved its point tonight.”

To begin the second, MSU scored two quick buckets to force a Stony Brook timeout. The two teams traded baskets until just under 12 minutes remained in the game, when the Spartans scored nine straight off of three Winston assists to balloon the lead to 18.

Winston showed increased aggression at times throughout the game, pulling up from beyond the arc in transition and driving to the bucket as well. His 13 points came on 5-of-8 shooting, part of the Spartans’ 57.9 percent clip from the field.

“My mentality was more aggressive, that’s a big thing with me,” Winston said. “I’ve got to stay with that aggressive mentality, that confidence I play with. If I keep that on me, I’ll be a better player, for not just myself, but this team.”

But with 8:32 left in a game that was quickly going the Spartans’ way, the Breslin crowd took a collective gasp as Bridges hit the floor and grabbed his left ankle after driving to the paint. He got up quickly to walk off what appeared to be a roll of the ankle, but the Michigan State trainers removed him from the game and took him to the locker room. He did not return for the contest, finishing with 20 points on 6-of-13 shooting.

“It’s a sprain,” Izzo said after the game. “Thank God it’s not a high-ankle sprain. It’s just a sprain where he rolled it. He’ll be day-to-day.”

As the crowd began to worry about the status of the Spartans’ superstar, the Spartans extinguished any hopes of a letdown with the help of one young freshman.

Grand Rapids native Xavier Tillman subbed in for the injured Bridges and delivered five high-energy minutes to pick the crowd back up. He scrapped his way to nine points, five rebounds and a team-high three blocks on the game, with most of that production coming in the stretch following Bridges’ injury.

“I just want to be dependable for my coaches and for my teammates,” Tillman said. “Where they’re like, ‘okay, if I’m tired, I can come out and I know X is gonna come in and do his job.’”

The heralded sophomore class led the Spartans all game long. Ward paced the team with a double-double, scoring 22 points and grabbing 11 boards, while Langford powered the squad on both ends of the floor in his game-high 31 minutes.

“Josh Langford was the best player on the court as far as a guy that did things on both ends,” Izzo said.

Langford showed his offensive potential, scoring a career-high 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting. He attacked the rim more frequently than any of his previous games, shooting 7-for-10 from inside the three-point arc in what he said was his “best game since getting to Michigan State on both ends of the court.”

“I definitely feel like the game slowed down for me, but I have a long ways to go,” Langford said. “I still have a lot of room for improvement. And I’m looking forward to keep growing within myself as a player and keep learning.”

The Spartans will spend Thanksgiving weekend far from home at the PK80 tournament in Portland, Oregon. The tournament, a collection of 16 Nike schools, is a tribute to the founder of the popular apparel brand, Phil Knight. The Spartans’ first game will tip off at 11:30 p.m. EST on Thanksgiving against DePaul.

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